Homer's `On the Spot' Renderings

The Cape Ann Historical Museum displays 75 early lithographs composed when the artist summered in the area

WINSLOW Homer's panoramic lithograph of Abraham Lincoln's 1861 inauguration carries with it an immediacy that gives it a contemporary ring. At the bottom of the work, which is on exhibit at the Cape Ann Historical Museum here, a statement reads, ``from a drawing made on the spot.''

Here is the equivalent of today's journalistic exclamation of an ``exclusive photo'' of a person or celebrity, or perhaps a breaking story ``on the spot'' from Bosnia or Rwanda. Or even an artist's courtroom sketch.

But in the late-19th century, the distance from event to journalistic deadline was often a woodcut or lithograph away, no small amount of time even for a skilled artist assigned to render events as they happened.

Homer (1836-1910), who went from woodcuts and lithographs to become the first American watercolorist of renown, retained the immediacy found in his early works. And the impetus for it - as much as origins are truly known - can be seen in this exhibition.

``Winslow Homer, Illustrator: Gloucester Summers Remembered,'' contains 75 mostly sentimental but exquisitely rendered woodcuts and lithographs done for journals of the day such as Harper's Weekly, Ballou's, and Appleton's Journal. In all, he created an estimated 1,400 woodcut engravings.

The exhibit also includes etchings, a chromo (color) lithograph, and selected illustrations from poetry and children's books.

While the industrial machine of America was flexing its muscles, Homer, a New Englander and a bit of a loner, drew subject matter that could only be classified as the forerunner of Norman Rockwell's work. Here are sunny glimpses of children at the Gloucester seashore where Homer spent two summers, of barefoot boys playing snap the whip, of dandified men in top hats on windy days in cities, of slim-waisted women in hoop skirts or frumpy bathing suits, all anonymously American, all drawn for mass appeal. Throughout his life, contemporary America was Homer's major interest.

Homer's Civil War drawings here are less of battles and more of the camp life of the common soldier. Here and there he looks at the rougher side of life: beggars going through trash piles in Boston, immigrants arriving in America, and working-class families at the beach.

Homer began his drawing career at 19 as an apprentice for two years at a Boston lithographic company. It was drone work, a treadmill existence. Homer later said, ``From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master; and never shall have any.''

Despite his dislike of the 9-to-5 environment, the perspective, composition, and skills of his early works are lovely and playful for an artist with no formal training. Drawn about 22 years after his apprenticeship, Homer's ``Eight Bells'' shows the distance from the sentimental to the genuinely powerful vision resulting when subject matter, masterful technique, and artist's character meet.

This gray, tonal masterpiece of lithography depicts two men in rain gear on board a ship facing a churning sea as they take instrument readings. There is forboding here, an almost misty, shadowy coldness as the men face the hostility of the sea.

It is this theme - man facing nature - that is the heart of Homer's major works in lithography, watercolor, or oil. The shadings and gray tones in ``Eight Bells'' are achieved with a network of lines found in all lithography, but Homer gives the lines incomparable life and meaning. The motif, although a jumble of lines, is big patterns of light and dark.

And the men, like all of Homer's figures in nature, face their adversary resolutely and with courage. In his later watercolors and oils, so rich and luminous with light and deep color, Homer's men do not disappear into nature, but as in ``Eight Bells'' they turn toward it with caution and respect.

Why Homer stopped drawing and illustrating is not known, nor are many details of his personal life. The probable reason for his shift in medium is that watercolor proved to be more fluid, richer in texture and possibilities, and more compatible with the maturity he had achieved through years of illustrating.

It is unfortunate that the splendid Cape Ann Historical Museum chose a small cramped room to show these 75 works. Jammed together on the walls, the apparent quickness with which the exhibit was mounted detracts from Homer as well as a fine regional museum. Handsome new galleries were recently designed by architect Graham Gund.

Equally questionable is the continuous recorded soundtrack of lapping waves and crying seagulls in the exhibit room. For an artist who disliked artifice so much, it seems wholly out of character for such sounds to be part of a gallery of his work.

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